“Racism is taking the place of pornography.”
— Jim Goad (James, 208)
In the 1990s a new theory of race came from the U.S. academy. It posited race as a social construction. The theory argues that race is both a category to organize group consciousness and a concept organizing individual subjectivities (Stoler). According to the social constructivists, “race” is no different than “class,” “gender,” “nation,” or “sexuality” in that it is a knowledge produced automatically by a diffuse network of social systems such as the family, the media, education, and language. The outcome is a performance of attitudes and beliefs felt by its performers as unchanging, natural, timeless, and predictable. The social construction theory contends that people live their lives transparently, unaware that their social identities are often contradictory performances played out on a stage which they, ironically, direct. To change people’s attitudes and beliefs about race or anything else, one would need to re-stage the whole socialization-performance process.
This re-staging effort was crystallized toward the end of the decade with the publication of two special “White” issues of academic journals. The first was by the Minnesota Review in 1996, edited by Mike Hill, who also edited a volume published by New York University Press a year later entitled Whiteness: A Critical Reader. The second was by Transition in 1998. These special “White” issues announced what was already underway in the U.S. academy: a radical swing away from “blackness” to “whiteness” as the preferred object of intellectual inquiry.
On June 22, 2003 the Washington Post ran a front-page story on whiteness studies in the academy, reporting that “at least 30 institutions-from Princeton University to the University of California at Los Angeles-teach courses in whiteness studies.” This development is a result of the work done by scholars during the ’90s. By the middle of the decade, Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, Alexander Saxton’s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, Eric Lott’s, Love and Theft, David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters, Fred Pfeil’s White Guys, and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White had been published by major academic presses, and reviewed in a broad array of newspapers, journals, and magazines. The new theorists of race, in particular Mike Hill, had seized the day with these special issues. Behind the momentum of cultural theory, which was taking hold in almost every discipline in the humanities, from anthropology and psychology to English studies, the proponents of whiteness studies had made a successful historic intervention into one of the most enduring discourses in U.S. society-“race.”
It should be noted that the scholarship produced during the 1990s was not at all uniform, and that certain key distinctions among the aforementioned works deserve recognition. The main distinction, apparent in their respective titles, has to do with the object of inquiry. Although they all share in common an objectification of whiteness, only Allen and Saxton pursue the historical origin of the “white race” as a social formation. Hence, the distinction is between a culturalist approach to whiteness and a historical one. Not surprisingly, the culturalist approach has gained the most attention in the academy, and is responsible for the establishment of whiteness studies.
The new cultural theory of race was a step forward, a direct challenge to the biological theory. It rightly shifted attention back to the social character of race, in the tradition of Dr. DuBois and the African American civil rights struggle. But there was one question the social constructivists seemed to avoid, perhaps from a desire to be true to their Foucauldian method of analyzing power: Who is constructing the social constructs? Foucault’s maxim that “power is diffuse” appeared to govern the culturalist approach to whiteness, in that there was a discernible attempt to bracket issues of ruling-class agency in the formation of the “white race.” Reading the new theorists of race in the ’90s, I felt a certain disappointment. If race is a social construction, located diffusely in culture, and no one knows or is concerned very much about who is doing all the constructing, then what can we do to change it? The moment evokes a passage from Antonio Gramsci where he talks about the interregnum in which the old is dying and the new is being born. In that moment, he wrote, “a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.” For if nothing can be done to change the white racial order of things, then why study it? It would seem that to study the “white race” as a social construction-as a whole system of political classifications as well as social rights, and privileges-without a concept of how to eradicate it is, to borrow Toni Morrison’s felicitous phrase, “playing in the dark.” To put it less felicitously, it could start to look like pornography.
In this case the old was the biological theory of race and all its new variants, including psychoculturalism and civilizationalism, which had been swept away by the force of the African American civil rights struggle. The civil rights movement persuaded the world that white racial oppression is a historical question having little to do with human psychology, biology or civilization. Racial discrimination is institutional, a product of state policy, legally imposed by a ruling class, with more than two centuries of empirically verifiable history behind it. It did not matter that the makers and enforcers of Jim Crow were racists, for the fact was that African Americans were no longer willing to accept the system as lawful. If whites retired from Jim Crow, that would help the cause immensely, but if they did not, the struggle would continue regardless of white people’s attitudes and beliefs about race. The civil rights movement argued that after the successful overthrow of the Jim Crow system of rule, if white people’s attitudes and beliefs about race did not change, that intransigence would come at their own peril. In the thick of the struggle, James Baldwin put it sharply: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”
Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century and down to the present, the imaginative literature of the United States has been in the peculiar position of mediating a monolith-the “white race.” In all hitherto existing class societies, the position of literature has always been unstable insofar as everything depends on the specific class situation at hand. In all events, a society in open class struggle delimits ideologically the kinds of literature produced and disseminated therein. Historically, literature has served many sundry purposes, including a humanizing function. But is it possible for literature to play a humanizing role in a society founded on racial slavery and oppression? How could literature have pretended to be about humanizing people in a society where it was a federal crime for every not-“white” person to read and write? That this basic question has never been posed explicitly by any of the United States’ greatest authors, except its African American writers, is evidence enough that there exists in the world today a peculiar relationship between literature and society-a systemic “white blindspot” that has simultaneously deformed and enabled the production of U.S. literature. Moreover, my thesis is that in the microcosm of this peculiar relationship can be seen the macrocosm of U.S. society’s development as a whole. While many Euroamerican imaginative writers have responded directly to these contradictory relations, particularly to the aporia between the literary ideology of American democratic pluralism and the actual lived social relations between whites and not-whites, few have treated white racial oppression as the ordeal of America, as the society’s most central and enduring problem. Among these few are Herman Melville and Sinclair Lewis. Why they were able to break free of the white blindspot is impossible to determine in the end; the more fruitful question is how they did it, and how scholars and teachers today could use their rather unpredictable contributions to better reveal and disable the white blindspot.
On the eve of the U.S. Civil War, Herman Melville published a peculiar novella entitled “Benito Cereno.” The narrative, which was included as part of a collection of stories under the name The Piazza Tales (1856), was odd for a number of reasons. First, the main character is a Spaniard, and of course Catholic. Two, a lengthy legal deposition follows the fictional narrative. And third, there is no hero of the story but rather a group of heroes, and they are all not-white. The narrative is of an African mutiny in 1799 on a Spanish slave ship called the San Dominick. The story is told from the point of view of a European American spectator, ostensibly a sailor since the details provided are organic to the daily operation of a large ship. The word “peculiar” is deployed more than a dozen times in the story, and when it is not being used to describe the situation on board the slave ship, the words “odd” and “strange” take its place. But what is so “peculiar” or “strange” about a mutiny on board a slave ship? Clearly had the captives been European the event of a mutiny would have been perceived by the Euroamerican spectator without any of the absurd misrecognitions that motivate the plot of “Benito Cereno.” In fact, what Melville achieves in the story is a masterful act of “signifyin’,” in the African American sense of the term: a cunning detour around an oppressive obstacle placed deliberately in the way of a person’s advancement. In Melville’s case with “Benito Cereno,” that obstacle is the white identity and his strategy is to objectify it-to make it peculiar and strange.
The story begins with an inexplicable gray fog and ends with a perfectly lucid legal document explaining exactly what just happened on board the Spanish slave ship. The whole structure of the story mimics the coming to consciousness of a deeply repressed and psychotic individual who believes his mental state is entirely normal and unproblematic. Embodied by the story’s only Euroamerican character, Captain Amasa Delano, the peculiar psychosis under analysis is white identity. He is described by the narrator, without irony, as “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature” (142). While there are several deep layers of the story, each is a product of Delano’s blithe refusal to see on board the San Dominick the simple, dramatic unfolding of an African mutiny. When confronted with African resistance to enslavement, Delano produces a fantastic mosaic of delusional storytelling, related patiently to readers by a calm, unironic, and unassuming narrator. It is an assemblage of psychotic virtuosity and the raison d’être of the story itself. Melville’s insight is that in no other society could this kind of thing happen-could mutinous resistance, a normal outcome of enslavement and oppression, produce all the essential elements of modernist art.
Indeed, readers of world literature would have to wait until the twentieth century for inexplicable strangeness and the peculiar to become key terms of storytelling. Surrealism would soon introduce to the world “automatic writing,” whose departure point was the liberation of unconscious desires through unmediated dream- narration. Yet Melville’s cunning inversion on the eve of the Civil War-making the “white race” into the “Peculiar Institution” instead of black slavery-proved that this form of writing is always available to the Euroamerican writer whose particular psychosis, white identity, is the society’s founding principle. Captain Delano’s dream-narration, captured unwittingly and automatically by his Euroamerican analyst-Melville’s “white” narrator-is not only surrealist in the rawest sense but a powerful indictment of white supremacism’s most shameless pleasure: the total displacement of historical reality in the pursuit of unmediated psychic ecstasy.
A brief detour through Toni Morrison’s brilliant monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), will help substantiate some of these assertions about Melville’s story. Her thesis is that, while the liberal critique of white racism has served an admirable purpose, it has at the same time created a self-serving illusion about how the system of white racial oppression actually works. The white identity does not come only at the expense of not-whites but of whites themselves, or, more precisely, of Euro- americans who have been adapted into an already “white” American social order. As Morrison frames it: “equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters” (12). Her main point is straightforward-in fact it “requires hard work not to see this,” she says. Just as racial slavery enabled the Anglo-American capitalist class to amass vast material fortunes, so did white supremacist ideology enable white writers to explore, without any of the normal, civilizing restraints, the “darkest” aspects of the human psyche. “The fabrication of an Africanist persona,” Morrison writes, “is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity” (17). In another passage she crystallizes this argument, which she will go on to substantiate through several close readings of canonical U.S. texts, in a few tightly-constructed sentences: “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination” (38).
Melville, whose readership of course was white, stages the drama of “Benito Cereno” in such a way that the white imagination is perspicaciously objectified. Not until the Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s would this kind of systematic objectification of whiteness enter the mainstream. In the ’60s it came through the experimental stand-up comedy of artists such as Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory, the cinema of Gordon Parks, the political genius of Malcolm X, the savvy manipulations of the white media by Muhammad Ali, and the popular poetry of Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez. Enabled by the steady march forward of the civil rights struggle, crystallized in Dr. King’s unchallengeable moral critique of white racial oppression, the objectification of white identity in the ’60s prepared the way precisely for the theory of race advanced by Morrison in Playing in the Dark. Thus it is instructive to glean from Melville’s objectifications a kind of blueprint for this new critique, which would have to wait one hundred years for a full elaboration.
Captain Delano’s white reflex is to deny totally and out of hand the possibility of black equality. In the case of the ongoing African mutiny on board the San Dominick, Delano’s denial consists in saying that “they were too stupid” to realize such a revolt (175). Delano has encountered the San Dominick off the coast of southern Chile by accident: by following the protocols of the modern sea captain, he approaches the San Dominick as a friend, to see what sort of assistance the vessel in distress requires. The slave ship’s name is Melville’s first act of signifyin’, and from this point forward his rhetorical javelins are thrown relentlessly at white readers. For in 1799 the Haitian Revolution was in full swing, a fact Captain Delano has completely blocked from consciousness. As any sea captain of the age would have known only too well, by 1799 the African slaves of the French West Indian colony of San Domingo were winning an epic war of liberation against the soldiers of the French monarchy. And at the same time they were valiantly fighting off a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and a French expedition of similar size under Bonaparte’s brother-in-law. As C.L.R. James famously recorded it in The Black Jacobins: “The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement” (iv). But of all this world-historical drama, the worldly Captain Delano is somehow completely ignorant. How could this be?
To answer this question requires another detour, this time through the historical research of Theodore Allen in his two-volume study of white racial oppression, The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997). Allen’s thesis is that the hallmark of racial oppression is that it “reduces all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, a status beneath that of any member of any social class within the colonizing population” (vol. 1, 32). Allen shows that, in the U.S. context where white racial oppression was opted for by the Anglo-American ruling class as a means of socially controlling the excessive influx of poor and propertyless European immigrant laborers, its defining characteristics were: (1) declassing legislation, directed at African American property-holders; (2) depriving African Americans of their civil rights; (3) outlawing African American literacy; and (4) displacement of African American family rights and authorities (vol. 1, 82). The result was the social formation of a new “middle class”-the “white race”-in which membership rights and privileges were made conditional on keeping not-“whites” down and out. In what Allen terms “the Great Social Safety Valve of American History,” he explains the logic of this “white race” monolith:
The white laboring people’s prospect of lateral mobility to “free land,” however unrealizable it was in actuality, did serve in diverting them from struggles with the bourgeoisie. But that was merely one aspect of the Great Safety Valve, the system of racial privileges conferred on laboring-class European-Americans, rural and urban, poor and exploited though they themselves were. That has been the main historical guarantee of the rule of the “Titans,” damping down anti-capitalist pressures by making “race, and not class, the distinction in social life” [the phrase is from Lyon G. Tyler, the seventeenth president of William and Mary College, in a paper read before the Virginia Historical Society in 1894]. This, more than any other factor, has shaped the “contours of American history”-from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the Civil War, to the overthrow of Reconstruction, to the Populist Revolt of the 1890s, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights struggle and the “white backlash” of our own day (vol. 2, 258).
The key terms of Allen’s analysis that help answer the question of Captain Delano’s white blindness are “‘white race’ solidarity” and “class-collaborationism.” First, Delano immediately identifies with the Spanish sailors on board the San Dominick even though they are in direct competition with his own commercial operations, speak a different language, represent a different empire, and practice a different religion. His identity politics go no deeper than the Spaniards’ pale faces. And second, Delano himself does not traffic in slaves-he is proudly from Massachusetts-yet he is eager to collaborate with the Spanish slave-trading captain Don Benito to get his human cargo back on route to its destination. Both aspects of Captain Delano’s behavior are extremely peculiar, because they directly contradict his own class interests. Like the gray fog that opens the story, Delano’s mind is clouded by whiteness, and this manifests itself in a series of absurd judgments that put his own life in constant peril.
However, these two aspects of Delano’s peculiar behavior in response to the African mutiny on board the San Dominick are difficult to recognize by readers who themselves are caught up in the white fog. Thus Melville’s inversion in “Benito Cereno” has to do with the total scale of white identity: as a social control formation it is endowed with the blinding power to distort and neutralize the oldest and most recognizable of human conflicts-class struggle. So instead of a thrilling narrative of mutiny at sea-oppressed against oppressor-white readers get a racial narrative of themselves. It is no wonder that “Benito Cereno” was unpopular when it was first published, and that a 1950 biography of Melville, winner of the National Book Award, dismissed the story as “weak and disappointing” (Arkin, 240). In short form, this is how Melville’s white racial narrative unfolds.
First, clear signs of class conflict are reflexively racialized, thereby denuding them of their own historical reality and the possibilities for social transformation inherent in any such clash of class antagonists. One of the first scenes observed by Captain Delano upon boarding the San Dominick is of African captives, unshackled, sharpening hatchets. Delano queries Don Benito about the “hatchet-polishers.” “‘And these Ashantee conjurers here,'” he asks, “‘this seems a curious business they are at, Don Benito?'” Don Benito gives a pat answer, doubtless rehearsed at knifepoint prior to the San Dominick‘s inevitable encounter at sea with another vessel such as Captain Delano’s. He tells Delano that a terrible storm had damaged the hatchets; his order is for the African captives to salvage them. “A prudent idea,” responds Delano, alluding to the duty of the owner of property to protect it. Which leads Delano to ask, for the first time, about the human property on board the San Dominick. Don Benito explains that the African captives are the property of his best friend, Alexandro Aranda, of whom Don Benito cannot seem to speak due to Aranda’s sudden death during their voyage, which Don Benito attributes to “the fever.”
At this point-one of the first of what will be many on-the-brink-of-consciousness moments of the narrative-Captain Delano must deal with several incontrovertible facts: (1) the San Dominick is a Spanish slave ship in severe distress; (2) all the Spanish officers of the ship, except Don Benito, are dead; (3) the African captives on board are roaming freely and some are sharpening hatchets; and (4) the ship’s captain, Don Benito, is constantly shadowed by an African “servant” named Babo, who appears to be giving orders to the captain.
Yet Delano’s response to this conjuncture is to relate to Don Benito a “sympathetic experience” about how he once lost his own best friend on a voyage. The experience taught him “‘never to have for a fellow voyager a man I loved, unless, unbeknown to him, I had provided every requisite, in case of fatality, for embalming his mortal part for interment on shore'” (158). This leads Captain Delano to inquire about Aranda’s remains, which throws Don Benito into convulsions and then unconsciousness. He is carried to his room by Babo. Readers later learn, in the legal deposition at the end of the narrative, that Aranda’s remains were stored by the African leaders of the revolt, in a brilliant strategem, inside a homemade canvas tomb that they had wrapped around the ships’s figurehead, under which they had painted the Spanish words “Seguid vuestro jefe” (Follow Your Leader). However, like all the signs on board the San Dominick, the canvas tomb was always visible to Captain Delano and Melville’s white readers; as for Captain Delano, he worked hard at refusing to interpret it according to the facts of the situation at hand. Instead, Captain Delano uses the hard facts as a departure point for his own melodramatic narrative of personal loss and suffering, which produces nostalgia for the good old days-a deep regression into the self where personal safety is linked with white racial solidarity and friendship. In terms of Melville’s blueprint for the critique of white identity, the preference for white racial melodrama in the midst of intense social crisis functions as a re-embellishment of whiteness, and a re-romanticization of what it means to be “white” in a world of epic class struggle. It is a deepening of the delusion that one is safely insulated from it as long as one stays in the “white race.”
Further, there is in Melville’s objectification of the white identity an analysis of white psychic disintegration that is extremely rich in what it reveals to the analyst of such problems in the U.S today, where a significant portion of the population is dependent on psychotropic drugs of one sort or another. For instance, in the face of Don Benito’s fragile mental state on board the San Dominick, Captain Delano concludes that Don Benito is merely a “hypochondriac” (161). In fact, a great deal of the story’s narration turns on Don Benito’s unstable mental condition. His demeanor is talked about in a variety of ways, and on nearly every page: “moody,” “resentful,” “innocent lunacy,” “wicked imposture,” “savage,” “infantile,” “splenetic,” “apathetic,” “mute,” “contemptuous,” “settled dejection,” “unstrung,” “distempered,” “nervous,” “somnambulant,” “dreary,” “spiritless,” “saturnine,” and “unhappy.” But Captain Delano’s flippant assessments of Don Benito are completely outside the context of class struggle. Melville’s inclusion of the legal deposition at the end is, in this respect, the forced injection of class-consciousness, since it thoroughly rationalizes each and every one the Spanish Captain’s so-called mental weaknesses. The implication is that the class-conscious reader does not need the legal deposition; only a white race conscious reader would. Similarly, the class-conscious U.S. psychologist must see in every white psychosis the bad seed of white identity.
In racialized America, Captain Delano’s analysis of Don Benito misrecognizes badly the root of the problem: he persistently confuses symptoms for the origin. Today the same could be said of the psycho- logical diagnoses imputed to millions of people by state social workers and counselors, pop psychologists, psychiatrists, and professional clinicians. This is a psycho-social issue and not a literary one, it might be said. Yet the white racial imaginary from whence these diagnoses typically come is most systematically rendered in literature, as shown by Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” And this is Melville’s historic inter- vention: that the white racial imaginary is productive and enabling of great modern storytelling precisely because it seals off from itself everything that could throw into question its own historical origin. In the words of Langston Hughes, the “white race” is “a tragi-comedy place where human beings block their own doorways. a really wonderful place where Alice-in-Wonderland walks upside down” (83). And so it blunders on, gathering psychic force by its own privileged self-isolation-from its addictive remove from social reality-where, as Morrison terms it, “the subject of the dream is the dreamer” (17).
Almost a hundred years later, Sinclair Lewis attempted the same inversion but with tremendous popular success as well as critical acclaim. His Kingsblood Royal was the best-selling novel of 1947, and in the immediate postwar period one of the most talked about books among U.S. literary critics (O’Connor, 129). A significant crack in the “white race” monolith is the best explanation for the sea change, since the novel’s sensational story line was all about the horrors and absurdities of the white identity a la Melville.By 1946 the thousands of African Americans who had served heroically in Europe during the war against fascism found back in the U.S. a system of white racial oppression totally unchanged. Moreover, their dignified treatment in Europe by people with the same skin tone as the white Americans who had never stopped oppressing them, and continued to oppress them in spite of their honorable service during the war, produced a new lucidity. Writing for the Chicago Defender in 1945, Langston Hughes captured this mood well in a piece entitled “The Fall of Berlin.” “Berlin was the capital of all the race-haters in the world,” he wrote…
the apex-city of white supremacy, the center of the Hitler-Aryan blood theory that influenced even our American Red Cross. Moscow is at the opposite end of the poles in terms of race relations. Moscow teaches that all races of men are brothers-and practices it as well. There is no Jim Crow in the Red Armies that took Berlin. Washington, center of the world’s democracy yet the city where, on the trains from the North and East, the conductor comes through the cars and says, “Washington! Colored passengers change to the colored coach ahead”. Washington, where Marian Anderson was barred out of Constitution Hall. It is well that Washington did not first capture Hitler’s Berlin. It is well then that it was Moscow that first captured Hitler’s Berlin. Moscow has no colonies, no voteless citizens, and no Jim Crow cars (Hughes, 136-7).
Like Melville’s white protagonist, Lewis’s is also a captain. Neil Kingsblood, captain of infantry in Italy, returns home from the war with one leg an inch shorter than the other but otherwise unscathed. Like Captain Delano, Captain Kingsblood is blithely ignorant of the world-historical events in which he was, and continues to be, actively involved. And like Melville, Lewis sets the stage deftly for his white protagonist’s systematic objectification. In one of the first glances at Captain Kingsblood’s whiteness-a dialogue between him and his wife Vestal-Lewis describes Neil with the same irony as Melville did Delano (“a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature”): “‘Still and all,'” says Neil unironically to his wife, “‘even hating prejudice, I do see where the Negroes are inferior and always will be. I realized that when I saw them unloading ships in Italy, all safe, while we white soldiers were under fire'” (11). Like Captain Delano in 1799 amidst the Haitian Revolution, Neil during World War Two was in the thick of a world-historical freedom struggle-the African American popular movement to de-segregate the U.S. armed forces. It was a fight led by A. Philip Randolph, and it prompted President Roosevelt’s famous Executive Order 8802 in 1942 outlawing racial discrimination in war plants. Yet during the war African American soldiers were routinely blocked from serving in combat units; instead they were relegated to menial tasks such as loading, cooking, and cleaning. To all this, the worldly Captain Kingsblood is somehow blind.
Here the profound effects of the African American civil rights struggle on the nation’s consciousness are felt in the approach of the Euroamerican writer. For unlike Melville, who wrote against what he saw as an unyielding, blundering monolith, Lewis perceived in the “white race” monolith a widening crack, and showed a joyful eagerness to exploit it to the fullest. A different way to put this is to say that, while the key terms are the same for both Melville and Lewis (“white race” solidarity and class collaborationism), there is in Lewis’s project a whole story to tell, a grand narrative of the times. And it would require the structure of the novel to speak it. In contrast, Melville’s pessimistic outlook on the prospect of a collapse of the “white race” monolith is reflected in his choice of literary forms-the novella. Marginalized and isolated in the U.S., the nineteenth-century African American antislavery movement did not, apparently, give Melville the confidence needed to imagine in epic form the collapse of the nation’s oldest social formation. But for Lewis, the moment was clearly at hand, enabled by two contingencies: the defeat of fascism in Europe and the militant response to white supremacy at home from African Americans.
Georg Lukács in The Theory of the Novel argued that the hallmark of the novel, compared to the older, epic forms of literature, is that in the novel the contingent world and the problematic individual “are realities which mutually determine one another” (78). “If the individual is unproblematic,” Lukács wrote…
then his aims are given to him with immediate obviousness, and the realisation of the world constructed by these given aims may involve hindrances and difficulties but never any serious threat to his interior life. Such a threat arises only when the outside world is no longer adapted to the individual’s ideas and the ideas become subjective facts-ideals-in his soul. The positing of ideas as unrealisable and, in the empirical sense, as unreal, i.e. their transformation into ideals, destroys the immediate problem-free organic nature of the individual (78).
In “Benito Cereno,” Melville’s inversion of the “white” dreamer from subject into object-of white identity from normal into pathological-is motivated by a situation in which the destruction of “the immediate problem-free organic nature of the [white] individual” by world-historical events, such as the Haitian Revolution or the “irrepressible conflict” between North and South in the U.S., is mysteriously averted. Melville’s answer to this mystery is that it is averted precisely because to problematize this “new man”-the white American male-is the same as destroying him altogether. The white man cannot be questioned, for to do so would cause a crack in the monolith and lead ultimately to its collapse. Melville’s genius was to show that the endurance of the white identity is attributable to “white race” solidarity, that an injury to one white man is an injury to all white men. But because this solidarity is based on an illusion (the illusion that there is no class struggle among Euroamericans), its undoing is just a matter of time.
That time had come for Lewis, whose intervention on the “race question” still stands today as one of the most original meditations on white identity in U.S. literature. For it was Lewis who introduced to mainstream America the idea that it was not the “Negro Problem” which afflicted the nation but rather “a White Problem,” and a “white mythology” that kept it concealed (238). Kingsblood Royal is a theory of defection from the “white race” advanced through tropes Lewis had made famous in previous novels such as Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Elmer Gantry (1927)-works that earned him in 1930 the Nobel Prize in literature, the first such award to an American. Anti-intellectualism, conformity, the lies of official society, the sham of born-again Christianity, and the banality of consumerism had been each treated satirically by Lewis, and, with his acerbic wit all over them, raised to the level of Americana. Yet there seemed to be missing in these early novels a center of gravity, or, better, a historical cause of all the absurdity that Lewis so masterfully satirized. Tragi-comic narratives all, yet one wonders today what was the specific object of Lewis’s gaze? In his day “Main Street” was that specific object, and his achievement then was to show how this particular trope was becoming a universal experience for Americans. But today the trope is rusting out in direct proportion to the deindustrialization of the nation’s midwestern factory towns. Ironically, today it is Lewis’s most “peculiar” novel, Kingsblood Royal-the only one that deals with race-which holds the most universal significance precisely because, whereas “Main Street” is fast becoming extinct as an American phenomenon, the white identity is not. An answer to why this is so lies in the pages of Kingsblood Royal.
Neil Kingsblood’s “immediate problem-free organic nature” is destroyed not by a single dramatic event or social crisis but rather by a modest intellectual excursion into the historical past of his own midwestern family. Neil is set on a task by his father Kenneth through which proof is sought by the latter that the Kingsbloods “have sure-enough royal blood in our veins,” a rumor passed down to Dr. Kingsblood by his own father (35). Neil’s father is a dentist who “had puttered contentedly through life” (34). He worships Neil, who, the narrator explains, “would carry out all the reforms-large schools and a new water-reservoir-of which Dr. Kenneth had dreamed, but which he had been too busy with dentistry and gardening and scrollwork to carry out” (35).
Just as adept at the ironic inversion as Melville, Lewis quickly flips the script on good-natured Dr. Kingsblood when Neil’s dutiful investigation of the family tree reveals that Kenneth not only lacks any trace of royal blood, but has been married all these years to an African American woman, his beloved wife Faith Kingsblood (née Saxinar). The evidence is compelling, documented in family letters, through a series of personal interviews Neil conducts with his maternal grandmother Julie Saxinar, and queries at the Minnesota Historical Society. Julie had always told her daughter Faith they were “part Chippewa,” but the grandmother did not consider that her father, Xavier Pic, who had married a Chippewa woman, was African American. This fact is revealed when Neil explores the life of Xavier at the Historical Society, and learns that he was a famous Minnesota frontiersman. The genealogical part of Lewis’s tale is carried out swiftly, within the first fifth of the novel. The stage set, Lewis’s next move is the total destruction of Neil’s white identity-a tour de force of epic size and unpredictability. “He was in a still horror, beyond surprise now, like a man who has learned that last night, walking in his sleep, he murdered a man, that the police are looking for him” (60).
The force of Lewis’s critique of whiteness is that he works through systematically all the possible explanations for it, and arrives at what might be called the historically-relative theory of white identity. Lewis has Neil review with himself all the social constructions of whiteness he has accumulated in the course of his life. This takes about fifteen minutes of Neil’s time. Each and every social construction is shown to be a simple negation of blackness. Neil is “white” and clean because he is not “black” and “more offensive than the animals who clean themselves.” He is “white” and smart because he is not “black” and “unable-biologically, fundamentally, unchangeably unable-to grasp any science beyond addition and plain cooking and the driving of a car, any philosophy beyond dream-books.” He is “white” because he is not “black” and “unable to keep from stealing and violence, from lying and treachery” (61). And he is “white” because…
To be a Negro, once they found you out, no matter how pale you were, was to work in kitchens-always in other people’s thankless kitchens-or in choking laundries or fever-hot foundries or at shoeshine stands where the disdainful white gentry thought about spitting down on you. that you were never admitted to the dining table of any decent house nor to the assemblies of most labor unions. was to be obsequious to white pawnbrokers; to be a leering black stevedore on the docks at Naples, wearing an American uniform but not allowed to have a gun, allowed only to stagger and ache with shouldering enormous boxes; to be a field hand under the Delta sun, under the torchlight in salvation orgies, an animal with none of the animal freedom from shame; to be an assassin on Beale Street or a clown dancing in a saloon for pennies and humiliation. was to live in a decaying shanty or in a frame tenement like a foul egg-crate, and to wear either slapping old shoes or the shiny toothpicks of a procurer; to sleep on unchanged bedclothes that were like funguses, and to have for a spiritual leader only a howling and lecherous swindler (60-1).
The social constructions of race are decisive to Neil insofar as he needs to know that “We’re not like that. Negroes are not like that” (62). But the far more crucial aspect of his new quest is contained in the string of mental notes cited above: the fact that learning to live white-free requires the repudiation of his white skin privileges, such as union membership for whites-only, better paying and easier work, white convenant neighborhoods, and, most significantly, the presumption of liberty. And as Lewis will show, there is a ruling class in “Grand Republic” who constructs these privileges, and who imposes a white racial order on Neil and every other member of his society. But before Neil can come to this understanding, and internalize the concept, he must embark on a journey described eloquently by James Baldwin fifteen years later in his legendary essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.” “To become a Negro man,” Baldwin wrote…
one has to make oneself up as one went along. This had to be done in the not-at-all metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you. This is not the way this truth presents itself to white men, who believe the world is theirs and who, albeit unconsciously, expect the world to help them in the achievement of their identity (183).
This trope of making it up as one goes along becomes for Lewis the structure of his defection narrative. Many white critics of the novel missed this strategy in their reviews, calling the storytelling mere “propaganda” (Schorer, 759). In fact, Lewis admitted that the novel flew out of him, taking only five weeks to complete (Schorer, 748). Suffice it to say that it was Lewis’s correct conceptualization of the white identity that enabled him to resist the impulse to construct a heavy literary edifice on which his hero is either “maniacally imprisoned in himself” or disillusioned with the world around him-where the attitude towards the outside world “is a lyrical one, compounded of love, and accusation, of sorrow, pity and scorn” (both phrases are from Lukács). In this way, Lewis’s own repudiation of white skin privilege-the refusal of both abstract idealism and the romanticism of disillusionment as narrative forms for his novel about white people-happens simultaneously with his hero’s defection from the “white race.” Lewis’s strategy was necessary, and it did not please the formalist critics, but then few liberatory actions ever do. It is worth noting that while writing Kingsblood Royal in Duluth, Minnesota (his hometown), Lewis managed to force permanent disassociations with many of his white friends and family by publicly speaking out against white supremacy at dinner parties and social functions (Lingeman, 498). According to biographer Richard Lingeman, Lewis became, during the writing of the novel, “the lonesomest man on earth” (500).
As the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance showed the country and the world, making it up as one goes along involves agonizing self-critique. Neil Kingsblood’s journey begins from this departure point. One of the first lessons he learns is that “the glee in becoming a colored boy” could be easily overdone (68). Freed from the white race corral, he experiences an existentialist elation: now nobody knows his name; he is free, precisely because nobody cares whether or not he exists, to define himself according to his own prerogatives. What occurs to him immediately is to fight: “If you are a Negro,” he tells himself, “you be one and fight as one. See if you can grow up, and then fight” (62). But this impulse is quickly countered with another: “But I’ve got to learn what a Negro is; I’ve got to learn, from the beginning, what I am!” (62). This pattern of self-questioning continues throughout Neil’s journey. It can be characterized as a swing between two poles: romanticism and idealism. What grounds Neil finally is the lived experience of being an African American in U.S. society.
Lewis’s pace is so tireless and swift that one accepts early on in the narrative that Neil will not hover long between the two poles. Moreover, Neil is an unpretentious midwesterner, interested in simple things: his young daughter’s development, his wife, his boyhood friends, sports, and work. It is telling in this respect that Lewis begins the novel not from the standpoint of Grand Republic, Minnesota-the story’s location-but instead with a family of New Yorkers passing through on their way to Winnipeg. “As they were New Yorkers,” the novel opens, “only a business trip could have dragged them into this wilderness, and they found everything west of Pennsylvania contemptible. They laughed at Chicago for daring to have skyscrapers and at Madison for pretending to have a university, and they stopped and shrieked when they entered Minnesota and saw a billboard advertising ‘Ten Thousand Lakes'” (3). This set-up is important, for it allows Lewis to locate his defection narrative away from the machinery of media fabulation, Manhattan, where an environment of self-invention obtains that often goes no farther than the sublimation of either poverty or wealth.
Neil’s movement between the poles of romanticism and idealism, then, happens at a conservative place where his midwestern humility could, dialectically, guide his radical decision-making. Thus his first move is to attend an African American church service. From here Neil’s open defection from the “white race” is just a matter of time, and in that time Neil learns more about his white friends and family than he does about the African Americans to whom he has never, up till this very moment, given a second thought. This has to do, I think, with Lewis’s treatment of race as a historical question, not simply a social construction.
For instance, Neil’s first visit to the Ebenezer Baptist Church ends not in his re-education about black Christianity but instead in a coming-to-consciousness about his own moral formation in relation to black Christianity. “This is my history, thought Neil; this is my people; I must come out” (92). In other words, Neil’s response to his first real social contact with African Americans is a politics of identification rather than identity politics. In keeping with Lewis’s inversion, Neil’s movement is not integration but rather re-integration: he discovers that it is the African American people who have given him his morally placed humanity. Thus his journey will not be a re-staging of racial self-performativity but instead a rediscovery of his own complex humanity. He will learn that the white identity is an incubus, for if it were merely a social construct, then his role reversal would be a matter of switching masks, from white to black and back again, as in a minstrel number. In fact, Lewis anticipates this limitation of the constructivist concept of race by having several of the African American characters in the novel treat Neil’s defection as a case of “a white man who only pretended to be a Negro in order to get in on the policy racket” (265). Their suspicions are based on the historyless character of such role reversal: that with any social construct, no matter how transgressive it happens to be, there is always the possibility of returning safely to where one began.
There is a crucial moment in Neil’s journey, early on his path to defection, where Lewis inserts strategically a testimony to counter the reversibility trope, which has been central to many U.S. writers, most notably Mark Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson and Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition. It comes shortly after Neil solicits the attention of the Woolcape family at the church service. Flirting with the reversibility option, Lewis presents Neil’s counterpart, Captain Emerson Woolcape, who was Neil’s classmate in high school. As they walk together after the service, Neil tries to establish an intimacy with the Woolcapes by approaching Emerson as an old-schoolmates-together buddy.
“Do you remember that funny old hen we had in algebra, Captain?'”
Emerson chuckled. “She was a crank, all right.”
“But she had a good heart. One time after class she said to me, ‘Neil, if you would do your algebra better, you might become Governor of the State.’ “
“Did she, Captain?” Emerson spoke with a drawl that was on the insulting side. “What she said to me, one time after class, was that she was considering only my welfare, and for a boy of my race to learn algebra instead of short-order cooking was ‘my, such a waste of time!'” (97).
The possibilities of a racial reverse frozen, Neil pushes forward with the Woolcapes anyway, his thoughts on a much larger question: “Shall I, who am Negro, become a Negro?” (98). Neil is welcomed by the Woolcapes back to their home, not to lunch but rather to a dramatic testimony delivered by Captain Emerson’s mother, Mary. The testimony she gives is spontaneous, prompted by Neil’s utterance of one of the main shibboleths of northern white racial apologetics- “but here in the North there’s certainly no prejudice” (101). Speaking of her granddaughter Phoebe, Mrs. Woolcape explains to Neil:
“That child is just beginning to learn the humiliation that every Negro feels every day, particularly in our self-satisfied North Middlewest. In the South we’re told we’re dogs who simply have to get used to our kennels, and then we’ll get a nice bone and a kind word. But up here we’re told that we’re complete human beings, and encouraged to hope and think, and as a consequence we feel the incessant little reminders of supposed inferiority; the careless humiliations, more than our Southern cousins do the fear of lynching. Humiliation! That’s a word you white people ought to know about!” (102).
Mrs. Woolcape then relates to Neil several recent episodes in Phoebe’s life. One incident is when a fifty-year-old white garage attendant told Phoebe that “he would be willing to sleep with her, if he could only get used to her being a nigger”; and the other is when Phoebe’s drama teacher in high school denied her a chance to try out for the school play, saying the cast was already chosen (103). “But that won’t break her bones, as it did her father’s,” Mrs. Woolcape continues. Her testimony is unexpected, and the power of it forces Neil straight out of the “white race” in an equally unexpected turn. “I understand,” he says at the close of Mrs. Woolcape’s testimony, “because I’ve found out that I am part Negro myself.” What elicits Neil’s sudden defection in front of the Woolcapes is Mrs. Woolcape’s account of the murder of her son.
“He went to teach in a Negro college in Georgia, where his great-grandfather had been a slave. The first time he saw that hideous sign ‘For colored only,’ he wrote me, he felt so angry and so scared, as if a man were coming at him with a knife, that he had to draw the car up beside the road and be sick.
“But he tried to do what his Southern acquaintances advised and to ‘play the game’-a game in which the other side always makes the rules. Then when he’d been there only a month, a policeman stopped his car and acted as if he’d stolen it. This man had seen Bayard around the college-he knew that though he was so pale, he was classed as ‘colored.’ He was so vicious that Bayard forgot and talked back, and they took him to the police station and said he was drunk-he never even touched beer-and he got angry and they beat him. They beat him to death. My son.
“They beat him a long time. Till he died there on the cement floor. He was a handsome boy. And they told his wife that she’d better keep still or she’d never get to bear her baby-who was our Phoebe.
“After the baby came, she escaped North, all day and all night in the jimcrow coach, and she died within a year. He really was a handsome boy; and they kept kicking his head, on the cement floor, all dirty and bloody, and he died there” (104).
With Neil’s defection from the “white race” in fast motion, Lewis’s denouement of the novel becomes the question of the day. If Neil’s whiteness is merely a social construction, then he might re-invent himself accordingly, and perform it differently this time. In other words, Neil could begin to negotiate his whiteness with his white race hometown. But if Captain Kingsblood’s whiteness is a vital element of social control in “Grand Republic”-Lewis’s familiar synecdoche of U.S. society-then his defection will have an immediate, irrevocable political effect on the whole community. In the latter scenario, there will be no negotiating, not because Neil rejects negotiation but rather because white supremacy cannot have it. As Lewis’s transplanted Mississippi businessman Wilbur Feathering has it:
“Me, I have never in my whole life called any colored person Mister, or Miss, and I never shall, so help me God! Here’s what you might call the philosophy of it. The minute you call one of the bastards Mister, you’re admitting that they’re as good as you are, and bang goes the whole God-damn White Supremacy racket!” (184).
Thus the “veteran millionaires” of Grand Republic take center stage to begin the second half of the novel. They have organized themselves into a white supremacist social group, the “Federal Club”-a new, more accurate synecdoche of U.S. society. Jews, women, and African Americans are barred, but so too are poor whites. Neil had been elected only because of his wife’s father, a wealthy businessman of Grand Republic. Every Christmas the Federal Club’s Auld Lang Syne Holiday Stag is the most significant social event of the year. “The whole affair resembled a bachelor-dinner given by J.P. Morgan the Elder to King Edward VII,” says the narrator (204). This year’s event would feature a speech on the “disappointing” role of Jewish and African American soldiers in the war, delivered by Neil’s boyhood friend Major Rodney Aldwick. “‘Those minority laddies like to dish it out, in their seditious press,'” Aldwick asserts, “‘but on the field of honor, those bellyachers can’t take it, especially the darker brothers. If you will permit a rude soldier to use the expression-they stink!'” (205). It turns out that Aldwick’s biggest fear is that African American civil rights activists in Grand Republic are fighting to eradicate the white-only membership rules for joining the city’s labor unions. “‘On my own initiative,'” says Aldwick, “‘I have been having an investigation made of some Negro agitators who are trying to corrupt our labor picture'” (207). In all events, Aldwick’s white supremacist manifesto brings Neil to his feet. And after contradicting laconically Aldwick’s account of African American participation in the war, he repudiates in front of the veteran millionaires of Grand Republic and the Federal Club his own white-skin privilege by announcing his African ancestry as well as his affinity with the African American political leaders maligned by Aldwick in his speech. Neil is promptly expelled from the Federal Club; and when he returns to work at the bank after New Year’s, he is summarily demoted. Very soon the news of Neil’s defection from the “white race” is all over the papers and on the local radio. There is no return for Neil and his family-no negotiating with whiteness. Instead, their lives are now on the line every day. In a matter of weeks his daughter is racially denigrated at school, he is forced to resign from the bank and search for work, his dog is shot and killed on his family’s front lawn, and he receives death threats in the mail and on the phone.
From this point forward the narrative builds up momentum and leads inevitably to a great showdown between the defector Neil and his family and the white supremacist ruling class of Grand Republic. The novel’s denouement is revolutionary, featuring a convergence of all of the major social forces and constituencies of Grand Republic, a gun battle, and a totally open-ended conclusion. The white supremacists have come to forcibly evict the Kingsbloods from their home, led by representatives of big business, the church, and the military. But converging on the scene also is a group of white liberals who seek negotiations and a rapprochement-“twenty years too late,” in the words of the narrator (318). Inside the Kingsblood residence are several of the African American leaders mentioned by Aldwick, and another defector, Jos. L. Smith, owner of a small bookstore and a descendant of Gerrit Smith, the radical abolitionist. The bullets soon fly, and Neil answers them with expert target shooting, taking down the white supremacist leaders one by one with shots to their knees and thighs. The Grand Republic police arrive and seize Neil and the African American leaders who came to defend his home from the white lynch mob. But the police refuse to arrest Neil’s wife Vestal, which brings on the novel’s denouement. “‘Oh, you’ll take me!'” answers back Vestal, as she brings “the butt of her automatic down on the detective’s head” (320). In fact, Vestal has the last word: “‘Neil! Listen! Listen to Josephus Smith bawling out the policemen. There must be lots of good white men, aren’t there?'” (321).
Shortly after the publication of Kingsblood Royal, a group of white supremacists sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover encouraging the FBI to seize all copies of the book and declare Lewis’s novel an act of sedition (Lingeman, 513). Hoover demurred, yet the perception of the novel as “seditious” is perhaps the most precise interpretation of it. Ebony quickly awarded Kingsblood Royal its annual prize for work that promotes interracial cooperation, and the NAACP endorsed it enthusiastically (Schorer, 760). The reading public bought 1.5 million copies. And white supremacy wanted it banned and Lewis arrested.
Today white supremacy is calling whiteness studies “despicable” and “closed-minded,” as might be expected. Today’s Hoover, the academic David Horowitz, wants it stopped on the grounds that it “attacks white people as evil” (Washington Post, 6/22/03). But like the tremendous popularity of Kingsblood Royal in the postwar period, whiteness studies today continues to gain force despite the attacks on Affirmative Action and the attempt by U.S. elites to re-segregate U.S. society. The questions raised by Lewis’s novel, as well as Melville’s novella, are consequently of great significance. What is “whiteness”? Where did it come from? Who invented it? How was it imposed? How does it function in terms of social control? And what can we do to abolish it?
The danger of conceiving “whiteness” as a social construct without a corresponding concept of how to overthrow the “white race” is straightforward: we could end up playing in the dark, and as a result miss the opportunity to embark on a different journey-the path to defection from it. For as Toni Morrison shows in all her work, there is no such thing as a safe life. Better to make the risk of being alive count historically. Better to make history than to keep interpreting other people’s interpretations of it. And better to take those risks out in the open, clear of white identity’s somnambulant fog, free of its narrow, overcrowded corral.
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